A Primer on Paganism

Nicholas Cage and Ellen Burstyn -- some serious star power for the remake of an odd, cultish (figuratively and literally) low-budget '70s British horror film -- but that is what's opening this weekend at theaters nationwide.

The rough plot of "The Wicker Man" is a very Christian policeman who investigates a missing girl on a very remote island.

The locals are very secretive, and practice a very twisted version of pagan rituals -- and I don't want to give away the end of the film, but suffice it to say that the policeman is in for a surprise.

The movie plays on a tension between Christianity and Paganism, throws in some sexually provocative scenes and, voila, you've got a "classic."

Pagan, in Latin, means from the country or rural citizen, so before you get the idea that it is all about animal sacrifice and devil worship, realize that most indigenous religions are by definition pagan -- the word doesn't carry any of those stereotypes in its definition.

It is also important to keep in mind that while we look at paganism, our piece looked at one branch, Wicca -- and that there are several sub-branches of practices and faiths. One thing both the witches we spoke to in the piece strongly agree on is that there is no devil worship or human sacrifice in their craft, and that there never will be.

Paganism flourished in the 1970s and '80s and according to a religious studies professor in California there could be anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people who practice the faith around the United States.

Pagan rituals like the burning of effigies to send a message to the powers that be are still practiced today -- take for example the annual Burning Man festival, which is currently under way in the Nevada desert.

Some branches of pagans are polytheistic, some aren't, some follow the Wicca tradition, some are Dianic, some are Gardnerian -- there are several flavors.

I didn't know much, if anything, about witchcraft, except for the cheeky stereotypes I'd grown accustomed to from Halloween and caricatures of what a witch ought to look like from cartoons and movies.

So for the piece our crew wandered into the hills of upstate New York, to meet the Wiccan witch of Woodstock -- and as I say in the piece, the only thing wicked about her is her sense of humor.

Susun Weed is a high priestess in the Dianic tradition, a branch that reveres the Goddess energy.

She says that the celebration of the female is something that draws young people to her practice, because it is at its very core, empowering women.

Weed said witches were women of power all through the ages and have always been scapegoated. From the inquisition to the Salem witch trials, they were targeted by organized religion and others who were interested in suppressing their power.

Hundreds of years ago a man could mix chemicals and be considered a scientist, if a woman was to make potions with herbs she would be considered a witch.

Once condemned, a witch would have to pay for her jailor, her judge and even the wood that burned her at the stake.

It was a great scam for the state or the church in power to reclaim property that a woman might have owned.

Another reason that witches suffered persecution, Weed said, was because of their seeming immortality.

Ever wonder why all the caricatures of witches include long noses, ears and chins? Susun said it is something that naturally happens when you reach very very old ages -- a buildup of extra cartilidge -- so these women in the Middle Ages who might have lived to be 90 or a 100 were more than anomolies, considering how short the life expectancy was for people of that era. Those who didn't understand how the witches were healing themselves, feared them.

Weed is a green witch -- another way to think of a green witch is as an herbalist. She teaches her apprentices how to make magic potions and how to cast spells. She even taught me how to cast one. More on that later.

While she does have brooms, she told me that a witch's broom is only a staff of power in disguise. No, they don't fly -- I asked.

Green witches are at home in the woods -- and Susun is certainly that.

We walked through her parcel of land, which used to be an old rock quarry, through what seemed like an enchanted forest. We got to the only flat mesa and stood on rock that had been carved out by the glaciers -- the heart center of her land, as she put it. It is her grand altar.

She showed me how dancing in a circle in opposite directions can loosen up the energy of a space and then taught me what she says is her most powerful spell.

Now, before you think I've sold out of the correspondent gig and become a warlock like ones you see on "Bewitched," there is one simple thing you should understand about witchcraft -- karma.

Several witches believe that any spell they cast will come back to them threefold. If you are truly interested in using your powers of witchcraft against something or someone instead of for the improvement of others, there is an inherent interest then in killing your enemy with kindness, not by wishing harm upon them.

So for example, if you really couldn't stand someone, you wouldn't try to inflict pain on them because you might feel that pain somewhere else in your life threefold. Instead, you might wish them a wonderful opportunity somewhere far away from you.

So the spell she taught me to cast on a boss I might not get along with included the following words, "I (insert your full name) exist in the universe. My boss (insert name) exists in the universe. There exists a connection between my boss and I that brings about pleasure and beauty." Thats it, simple as that.

Whatever the fate of my boss, it's probably not as bad as that of the wickerman.